Monday, 20 August 2007

Conspiracies, Bureaucracies and Political Evil - A Review of Capricorn One

by Edwin Hesselthwite

“He sat there two months ago and put his feet up on Woodrow Wilson's desk, and he said, "Jim. Make it good. Congress is on my back. They're looking for a reason to cancel the program. We can't afford another screw-up. Make it good. You have my every good wish." His every good wish!” Dr. James Kelloway, played by Hal Holbrook
1978 - Carter is in the Whitehouse, Callaghan is in No 10. born; Capricorn One emerged in the shadow of '77's massive SF blockbusters: Lucas's Star Wars and Spielberg's Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. The film was already something of a relic, a little too slow and thoughtful for a modern SF blockbuster. The classic years for intelligent thrillers in the early 70's were over... A huge rubber shark had lunged onto a little fishing boat and failed to eat Richard Dreyfuss, but managed to eat Francis Ford Coppola instead. The Movie Brats generation were on their way out.

Politically, America was still in the shadow of a bungled hotel burglary in '72 and the resulting impeachment proceedings. This, and the counter culture generation, led to a rash of highly paranoid movies (Alan Pakula made a bunch, but think of Soylent Green too) and a deep cynicism about the government. For NASA, funding cuts were bringing an end to the Golden Age of American space exploration: Voyager 2 had been launched towards the outer Solar System in '77, the Viking Missions had made their way to Mars and the old Saturn rockets had yet to be replaced by the new and exciting Space Shuttle Program.

With Elliot Gould, O.J. Simpson, a hammy Telly Savalas in a bi-plane chase and a score by Jerry Goldsmith, Capricorn One couldn't fail at the box-office, despite the changing times. Capricorn One's theme's of NASA corruption and Mars landings barely classed as science fiction in '78. Apollo 17's lunar landing in '72 was a vivid memory, Government lies were virtually expected, and a manned mission to Mars was the obvious next step for America.

“Over the years, the space shuttle program has changed its organizational structure due to outside forces… They emphasized effectiveness and efficiency. Essentially they emphasized cost and schedule and things like that… And de-emphasized good engineering and research and development and safety.

The board felt that in order to understand this accident that you have to understand the history of the shuttle. The board felt very strongly that this … was not a random anomalous event. This accident, when you put it in the context of the shuttle's history, fits into a plot that's predictable.” Admiral Hal Gehman, Chair of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Capricorn One is among my all time favourite movies. It doesn't try to be 2001 or Citizen Kane, it's a straight up paranoid political thriller, with a story that can be summed up in a sentence: What if they had to fake the Mars landing, and it still went wrong? In the hands of the Movie Brats films had subtlety, taking an emotional investment we find unfamiliar today. The opening scene (all 11 minutes of it) is particularly low key: with no character introduction and a conversation between politicians as they wait for a countdown. There are numerous nice touches and the script is razor sharp. Elliot Gould get's some fantastic lines in his Woodward and Bernstein type reporter role, and the film climaxes with a Helicopter/biplane chase. There is enjoyment, along with the political cynicism and attitude to NASA that borders on prophetic.

History has been unkind to Capricorn One, either it is forgotten, or it is cited as evidence by those strange Internet-types who deny Apollo 11 ever landed. Bart Sibrel, a classic example of the type, made a career out it (he's even been punched in the face by a 70 year old Buzz Aldrin) naming his documentary after a misquote from the film A funny thing happened on the way to The Moon. A film with this much class deserves better.

The guts of Capricorn One is Hal Holbrook's villain, the NASA administrator. It is through his character that the film emphasises Watergate era corruption and conspiracy. Notable links to Watergate are Holbrook (who played Deep Throat in Pakula's All The President’s Men), a young unorthodox investigative reporter as hero, Woodward and Bernstein are even name-dropped in a conversation about good journalism. Hyams uses Holbrook’s character to make a film about political evil, crimes committed by the system more than by individuals, so they never seem to stick.

As the film progresses Hal Holbrook’s character goes through a moral descent; at first he appears to be acting altruistically, and before using any leverage he gives a long speech desperately trying to persuade the astronauts to get on board for the good of the project. It’s only when they back him into a corner that he ineptly blackmails them. But the political narrative becomes set, to the world the astronauts are on the rocket. Holbrook is gradually hemmed in more and more by events, until he has no option but to remove them and the dangerous reporter. By never getting his hands dirty he manages to maintain his composure and personal morality. The scene where he consoles Brenda Vaccaro, the astronaut's wife, is chilling. There is no cartoon demon here, he was honestly going to fly them back to their families, until in classic NASA fashion, the technology fails. The real villain played here is The President, always offscreen and never giving sufficient responses, everything that happens is a result of the line I chose for the top quote of this essay, but none of it can be tied to him because he has made it clear that he doesn’t want to know.

When the leader chooses ignorance, but makes it clear that they have the power and failure will not be tolerated, is a very dangerous time. I haven’t studied the topic, but having visited Auschwitz and read If This Is A Man, I have long suspected that Hitler never directly ordered The Final Solution (I don't think anyone gets up in the morning and decides to order 11 million deaths, it's part of a chain of events); that he simply went to Himmler and Eichmann and made it clear the Jews no longer fit his story for where Germany and Europe were going. Then once it was set up it added flexibility to the system, allowing similar problems to vanish. Political evil happens when you establish a political narrative and it becomes more important than the facts (for example, Saddam Hussain having weapons of mass destruction), until the facts must be changed to fit the story. To my mind, this may be why politicians who use the big lie technique, such as Hitler, Oswald Moseley and Joe McCarthy, are so dangerous (rather than them being mentally ill or storybook evil); because once their narrative becomes the dominant one of the time then reality becomes secondary. Set the wheels in motion and institutionalised bureaucrats can be pushed to do pretty much anything, it’s the way humans are.

This film's other main target is NASA, with its deeply cynical tone and emphasis on bureaucrats. Conceived in the shadow of the Soviet missile gap, NASA's purpose has always been cloudy, and the turgid effects of budget squabbling have lain heavy on it since Apollo 11 finished the primary goal of the organisation's first decade. By the time this film was made there had already been accidents, Apollos 1 and 13, but nothing to compare to what was to come with the Shuttle.

I haven’t trusted the organization since reading Feynman’s book discussing (amongst his many stories) his key role in determining the cause of the Challenger disaster: What do you care what other people think?. You create a government department, under the auspices of science but which is actually a mixed bag of motivations, from international public relations to pork barrelling, and you are going to find it difficult to justify your stratospheric funding. Go several years down the line and you have an organization hanging on by it’s fingernails. To my eye, NASA has been the single biggest resistance to human space exploration in the West of the past 30 years, because they have always had incumbency. How do you compete with billions of tax dollars when you are considering satellite repair/launch as a business line?

I find it deeply, deeply depressing that so little has been made of The X Prize in the general media. There has been no movie made about it, there isn’t even an official biography of Burt Rutan; why? Because everyone thinks it's already been done by NASA. The pathetic, clunky, Winnebago of the skies that is The Shuttle, and people pay no attention to the first genuinely practical space program of the private sector. In Capricorn One Hyams showed insights into all of this; there is a strong undertone that the only purpose of NASA is to continue the existence of NASA. It also sent a cold shiver down my spine when I realized the cover-up/mission failed in this movie because of the detaching of the heat shield on re-entry, exactly the cause of the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

Hyams never quite made it into the big league of cinema, following this with the less inventive but solid Outland, a High Noon remake set on a Jovian moon with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. Not a bad film, but nothing special. Then he went on to make the flawed but well crafted 2010; a similar attempt at intelligent, political, science fiction but burdened by the terrific weight of Kubrick's original, a job best not attempted. His decline then accelerated towards high concept trash in the 80s and 90s (Timecop, The Relic and End Of Days), his films no longer even notably intelligent.

Capricorn One is no masterpiece, it’s probably not even all that good, but it has a vividness and an insight to it that hundreds of more artistic movies lack. It is certainly food for thought, and a fascinating slice of the 1970’s. If you liked it once and haven’t seen it in 20 or 30 years, go and watch it again. It’s worth it, even if it's just for Elliot Gould saying:

"Look, when a reporter tells his assignment editor that he thinks he may be on to something that could be really big, the assignment editor is supposed to say: "You've got forty eight hours, kid, and you better come up with something good or it's going to be your neck!" That's what he's supposed to say, I saw it in a movie".


Anthony said...

It also sent a cold shiver down my spine when I realized the cover-up/mission failed in this movie because of the detaching of the heat shield on re-entry, exactly the cause of the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003.

It's not that surprising. Re-entry is by far the most perilous phase of the mission

Pritchard Buckminster said...

Plus, he eats a raw snake. That's just cool.

The acting in the this film is often to the stiff side of wooden but it is never- the- less a classic and highly enjoyable film. The visual equivalent of 270 page sci-fi classics with hand paintd front covers...

What's the similar one where they wheel the shuttle into a hanger and pump it full of LCD based drugs with pictures of space flight going past the window? Same story but with a cool 60's-esque "the Government is secretly supplying all the drugs to the hippes as a test bed of some kind" paranoia to boot?

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